There was no-one more fitting to secure Pirates a third straight home grand final than Sam Collins.
The breakaway was a workhorse as the premiers overcame a tenacious Moree 31-28 in a colossal qualifying final at Ken Chillingworth Oval on Saturday.
Much like the corresponding game last season, where Pirates edged out Walcha, it was a titanic tussle and Pirates were forced to dig deep.
Collins looked to have sealed victory for them when he charged over in the corner to push them out to a 10 point lead with three minutes to go.
But the Bulls had been hard to shake off all day and a few phases after the kick-off forced a penalty.
After a couple of strong charges from the Bulls forwards, five-eighth Jamie Sampson exploited a bit of space on the left to send Josh Walker over with a minute to play and give them a flicker of hope.
Pirates could have been excused for having flashbacks to last years grand final as the Bulls threatened to snatch it, but as was the case then they were able to force a fumble and from the scrum they booted the ball to the safety of the touchline.
The players’ reactions upon hearing the final whistle told how much it meant to earn a shot at a third successive premiership.
“It definitely took 80 minutes to get that victory,” a relieved Pirates coach Mat Kelly said.
“It could have gone either way.”
It wasn’t by his admission pretty, Kelly describing it as “very ugly” in fact, but they were able to find a way to win.
Their defence was a big part of that.
“We had to do a lot of it. I’d probably say they had more possession than us,” Kelly said.
Captain Conrad Starr gave the home side the perfect start picking the ball up off the back of the scrum to put them ahead 7-nil after only a couple of minutes.
“We trained well all week and started well, and then we sort of went to sleep,” Kelly said.
“You have to give credit to Moree and the pressure they applied.”
That pressure led to uncharacteristic errors and fumbles.
“I think we put too much pressure on ourselves and we found we just handed Moree possession and put ourselves under pressure defensively and with that comes fatigue,” he said.
The Bulls hit back with a scintillating 70m effort.
After repelling several Pirates drives, skipper Nathan Ebbett ripped the ball off Jack Shelton. Sensing an opportunity, the Bulls spun it wide, Sampson floating out a lovely pass to Jordan Cosh. Cosh then found winger Mitch Adams, who turned the ball back inside to Sampson to score under the post.
They then hit the front after a dropped ball landed perfectly for Cosh and he streaked away.
Pirates responded a few minutes later through Doug Biffin to tie up the scores, Starr’s second in the shades of half-time giving them a 19-14 advantage at the break.
The Bulls had all the early pressure in the second half, and while the Pirates defence was resolute the pressure eventually told, although Pirates would have been kicking for themselves for the manor they turned the ball over.
After holding the Bulls’ maul up, they got caught out fiddling with the ball at the back of the scrum and the feed was reversed. From 5m out the Bulls made no mistake Matt Wannan, taking the ball strongly off the back and making it 21-19 with half-an-hour to play.
Pirates finally got a bit of territory and reclaimed the lead through Tim Collins.
The Bulls’ repeated infringements saw them lose Ben Williams for 10, but things were evened up a few of minutes later when Pirates lost Andrew Moodie for the same reason.
Clinging to a five point lead, that was when Pirates’ defence really stood up, with the Bulls camped in their territory for much of that period but unable to score.
“I think everyone dug deep and showed their courage,” Collins said.
“I think we defended inside our 50 the whole time.”
Kelly said Collins was “absolutely phenomenal”.
“He was the best player on the paddock,” he said.
“He’s one of those players that just does not stop and was fantastic on the ball.”
Farrer earlier became the first team through to the grand final when they defeated Pirates 34-29 in the under-19s final.
The Bulls then erased a 17 point deficit to down old foes Narrabri 24-17 in second grade before Inverell hung on for a 20-17 win in the women’s 7s.